Left Hand Gone
* A note to you - It's been awhile since I've posted here; some other things have preoccupied me.*
“Music is what language would love to be if it could.” – John O’Donohue
I cannot even pretend to know anything of substance about the piano or how it is played. The concept of reading a musical chart is well beyond me. I’ve never understood music theory with its nearly infinite intellectual nuances, nor have I ever sounded intelligent discussing such things. These are my disclaimers, my free admission of musical ignorance.
What I do know is what happens in my innermost when a finger presses a key, a hammer drops to a string, and a noise is made. The act is for the player. It comes full circle in the soul of the listener. A note complete. On to the next. Anyone can press the key and make a noise. Few can express their very being through the key and by doing so let the rest of us know we are alive.
I first heard the jazz piano playing of Keith Jarrett in the late 1970s when he was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. In the interest of full disclosure, I listened to this performance under the influence of an evening’s worth of marijuana consumption. It’s fair to say I was immersed in the listening experience despite the TV speaker’s poor quality.
I had never heard playing like this. The notes flooded me, the spaces between the notes almost nonexistent, perhaps two or three pauses in the whole piece. It flowed seemingly unimpeded from consciousness, a rumbling, incessant roll through his left hand, scatting lightly through his right. Tears in my eyes, I almost fell out of the chair. Next day I thought maybe it was just the weed. Turns out it was not.
On the heels of my first divorce some years later, I retreated into music (among other things), and one of the primary experiences I would afford myself was listening to the complete recording of his legendary Koln concert. I would have to schedule such times in advance because it was a double album, so intimate and complete that I could not bear to listen to just a side or two at a time. I required the all of it because that is how it was played, in two completely improvised parts on a piano that, like me, was broken. The first, nearly half an hour on side one, the rest on sides two, three, and four. In the days of vinyl records, the turning-over process was excruciating.
I would lay on the floor of a darkened room between my high-quality loudspeakers and listen to the soundtrack of my life and marriage, my early fatherhood, my utter failure. I heard the longing voice of it all through those fingers placed to the keys, pressed perfectly to drop the hammer to the string, the note complete, on to the next. The notes like brushstrokes, the brushstrokes like words, the words leading back to the notes. And so on. Left hand rolling, right hand noodling through my dark night, embracing its crushing sadness, yet holding out hope that someday just maybe, most if not all will be well…riding the notes, the strokes, the words, all the way from the dark womb of experience to the light of some future resurrection. This was not just some jazz tune.
I fell out of touch with Jarrett’s work in the ensuing years. It was displaced by other forms, but never forgotten; as determinative to my inner life as adolescence, as a broken heart, as desperation, as any particular sunrise. Life is about movement and bending of time.
I recently read a few articles reporting that at age 75, he can no longer use his left hand. Something happened in his brain…a couple of strokes it was said, not likely to ever return other than perhaps to hold a cup it was also said. But what has me in such a sad mood as I write, is what he said: “I don’t feel right now like I’m a pianist. That’s all I can say about that.”
How I wish I could have heard his voice as he spoke, could have watched his eyes. Then I could possibly know his grief, his longing, his desperation, his hope for something better…the same notes he played to me from a long-ago stage in Koln.
I’d like to send those notes back in some way, return them from my innermost through the air to the string, the hammer, the key, his hand. I’d like him to find a way, in his 76th year on earth, to play a flood of notes through that right hand, notes no one else on earth could ever hope to play. I’d like him to do it in a single take, on some dark stage, lit by one spotlight, and see what happens when two hands-worth of soul comes out of one. I’d like him to find a way to feel like a pianist again.
Perhaps a silent prayer…
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